Kenenisa Bekele in the Ethiopian singlet (Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)
This past week saw a strange and somewhat comical scenario play out in one of the world’s preeminent track powers.
Ethiopia, somewhat reeling from a disappointing team performance at the World Championships in Daegu, suspended indefinitely 35 of its finest athletes for not showing at a scheduled training camp.
The suspension included gold medalists and word record holders Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele both whom have undergone scrutiny both at home and aborad recently due to injuries.
The initial shock of this announcement created a firestorm akin to the possibility of an entire season lockout of the NBA. Also similar to the NBA was a fiery call by its perennial champion Bekele to ask to compete for a new country, in a manner reminiscent to Kobe Bryant’s offer to play overseas during the presumed lockout. His agent Jos Hermans reported that Bekele was so frustrated and insulted by the sporting council’s ruling that he sought to change his nationality to compete for another country.
Possibly seeing the handwriting on the wall that they may have done more harm than good, the sporting council rescinded the ban after pledges from the suspended athletes to report to future camps. Unknown whether it was the prospect of alienating its best athletes, the chance that national hero Bekele may take a walk to an Arab fiefdom for a new home to compete for, or satisfaction with the apologies and promises of compliance with their rulings, the Ethiopian Track Federation changed its mind in under a week.
While stating that it was an injury that kept him reporting to the camp and his agent Hermans stating that veteran athletes like Bekele are not in need of such guidance as say that of a younger athlete, this shows a fissure common among many national squads.
Whether it is the U.S. having to decide if Mike Rodgers should run following a positive test for performance enhancers, British officials saying they need to dig deeper despite an above average showing in Daegu or Kenya not having a clear cut method to selecting its deep marathon squad,all nations appear to suffer from a dysfunction in how it handles its finest track and field athletes.
Unlike other sports where media coverage and insights are made by hoards of analysts about how to fix these situations, track and field is on its own. Maybe that’s for the best.
However I find it discomforting that a nation bestowed with such a rich history of running glory in Ethiopia could possibly ban a man who has draped himself in his nation’s flag in victory repeatedly, being given a ban over such a minor infraction.
Running has served as a beacon of light for a nation that has been blighted with war, famine and drought. Ethiopia’s athletic tradition must not be besmirched by such trivial disputes.
For its sake and for the advancement of athletic success worldwide, we can only hope that the breach in trust between its competitors and its governing body can find harmony.